Hot cross buns are a Good Friday treat

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Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One ha’ penny,
Two ha’ penny,
Hot Cross Buns

These buns go back a long way, but for much of their history they were known simply as “cross buns.”

The earliest record of the familiar nursery rhyme is in Christmas Box, published in London in 1798. However, there are earlier references to it as a street cry. The earliest written record of the term “hot cross buns” was in Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1733, which noted:

Good Friday come this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.

The fruit-studded sweet buns have become connected to Good Friday – more on this later – but it wasn’t always so.

An ancient custom?

Many scholars think the custom of baking buns and decorating them with a cross is much older. Archeologists found two small, burned loaves marked with crosses in the ruins of the Roman city of Herculaneum, destroyed by the same volcano that destroyed Pompei.

Pagan Saxons honored Eostre, the goddess of spring (and source of the word Easter) with loaves marked with crosses. They may have symbolized the four stages of the moon or the four seasons.

But as food historian Ivan Day says in a long article about hot cross buns, “The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no-one tended to write about them in the very early period.”

A symbol of the crucifixion

Christianity naturally adopted hot cross buns to symobolize the crucifixion of Jesus, along with numerous superstitions. In days of yore, people believed a bun baked on Good Friday would never go moldy. A bun hung in the kitchen would maintain safety in the home, and maybe even improve the quality of the baking done in it. Burying a hot cross bun in a pile of corn would keep away vermin.

An early Christian myth deals with St. Clare of Assisi and Pope Gregory IX.  The pope had come to Assisi for the canonization of St. Francis in 1228. Sister Clare invited him to share her humble meal of stale bread, and when she blessed it, a cross miraculously appeared on the loaf.

The world’s oldest bun

In 2010, the website World Amazing Records published the story of Nancy Titman, then 91, who claimed to have the world’s oldest hot cross bun. The bun, which has March 1821 on its base, was made in the London bakery of Nancy’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Skinner.

Nancy, from in northern England, said, “It’s a relic which has been passed down through the family. My mum said our ancestors worked in a baker’s shop and they believed buns baked on Good Friday didn’t go mouldy.

“It is rock hard and the currants have disintegrated but you can tell it’s a hot cross bun and you can still see the shape of the cross.”

A pub in London’s East End called The Widow’s Son has a connection to hot cross buns. The story is that a widow once lived on the site. Her only son a sailor who was due to return on Good Friday and asked his mother to bake him some hot cross buns.

He never returned, but every Good Friday, his mother had a new bun waiting, which she added to her collection from previous years. When she died, the buns were found hanging from a beam in her cottage. This story has been preserved by the landlords of the pub that replaced the cottage in 1848. Every year British sailors gather at the pub to eat hot cross buns, drink beer and have a good time.

An Elizabethan connection

In her book on English baking, Elizabeth David says Queen Elizabeth I cemented the connection between hot cross buns and Good Friday by forbidding bakeries to make any spiced bread “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas.”

In the old days, the cross was marked with knife slashes in the dough before it was baked. Today it’s common for the cross to be made of icing.

Although their popularity peaks before Easter, fruit-studded hot cross buns are sold in Britain year-round – in a variety of flavors, no less – and have become one of the country’s most popular baked goods.

This recipe comes from the Fleischmann’sYeast Best-Ever Breads cookbook. The buns are lightly spiced, tender and full of dried fruits.

The recipe calls for a cup of chopped dates. I thought I had enough dates on hand, but I discovered someone else in the household had gotten to them and I only had a quarter-cup. I made up the difference with golden raisins and dried cranberries, and the buns were terrific!

This was my first time making this recipe, and as you can see from the photo, I wasn’t very adept at making the sign of the cross. (I don’t think that has anything to do with my being Jewish!)

You need to make the icing thicker than you would if making a glaze – and wait till the buns are completely cool before making the crosses. If you have a pastry bag or another method of piping it on, that will give you better results. It also might help to cut a cross into each bun before you bake them.

This recipe makes 18 buns.

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